Accessible India intended to take measures to secure the right to an accessible environment for people with disabilities. But it failed
The enactment of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 has ensured the domestic transition of the social model adopted under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities adopted in 2006 and ratified by the Government in 2007. The principles stated to be implemented for empowerment of persons with disabilities (PWD) are respect for inherent dignity, individual autonomy, including the freedom to make one’s own choices and independence of persons. The Act lays stress on non-discrimination, full and effective participation and inclusion in society, respect for difference and acceptance of disabilities as part of human diversity and humanity, equality of opportunity, accessibility, equality between men and women, respect for the evolving capacities of children with disabilities and respect for the right of children with disabilities to preserve their identities. The principle reflects a paradigm shift in thinking about disability from a social welfare concern to a human rights issue. However, the rights-based vision of the Act has not been translated into reality as yet. This is because of the lack of the Government’s efforts to ensure that measures are taken for which it has been made responsible under the Act. Accessible India has been one of the most visible campaigns of the Narendra Modi Government which intends to take measures securing the right to an accessible environment for PWDs in the country. Launched before the enactment of the 2016 Act, it seeks to ensure a Built Environment Accessibility, Transportation System Accessibility and Information and Communication Eco-System Accessibility in India, the three of its basic components. It is a matter of great misfortune that India’s biggest campaign has failed miserably in its effort. The failure can be basically attributed to the ingenuity shown in its vision, as ambiguous and over-ambitious targets were made without any measure of accountability. The campaign thus serves more in rhetoric than in action.
Ambiguous and over-ambitious targets: The campaign under Built Environment Accessibility targetted 50 most important buildings in Tier-1 cities and 25 most important Government buildings in Tier-2 cities, to be made fully accessible within a period of six months by July 2016. The revised guidelines have extended the deadline to March 2020. The numbers and time period were too ambitious for the reach of the Department of Persons with Disability. The deadlines were missed and extended consecutively and targets under it are yet not achieved even as three years have passed since the campaign was launched. Moreover, there was no study done on the number of Government websites or the quantum of public documents, which makes it impossible to assess the Government on the targets it envisaged as they were mostly made in percentage terms i.e. to make 50 per cent of all Government websites and public documents accessible by March 2018 . Such ambiguous targets make it easier to extend the deadline as it becomes impossible to measure the true progress of the work done.
Lack of accountability framework: The department has only released partial information in terms of the total number of buildings and websites that were made accessible but greater details about these buildings have not been provided. This information is not only necessary for awareness but also necessary for accountability purposes. No verification study has been conducted or is currently under process by technically qualified Government or non-government agencies to assess the progress made in built environment or Information and communications technology in terms of accessibility. With respect to public buildings under the State Government, the department issues utilisation funds under the campaign. Data can be easily found on the huge amount of funds disbursed under the scheme. However, no accountability is ensued on the State Government as no post-verification study is done to check the proper use of funds. No training or workshop has been conducted to train engineers in the task of retrofitting. Untrained professionals are unable to understand the reports provided to them post accessibility audits.
Social audit: The campaign did include a component of “social audit” to ensure implementation in the form of a website, a mobile-based application where one could report inaccessible buildings and action could be taken on it. However, the objective completely failed because of sluggish implementation of this measure as both the website and the application have been unmanned and thereby lying defunct since 2016.
The failure of the campaign to properly formulate its target and include accountability in its practice has reduced it to a utopian status without any real ground-level impact. This failure is for the lack of technical experts on the subject of accessibility involved in the formulation process. There is a sincere need for the Department for Persons with Disability to diverge from this erring process and hire a permanent officer trained in universal design and accessibility so that proper measures can be taken to address the issues of PWDs.
(The writer is Executive Director, National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People)